Staughton Lynd: A Historian with a Place in History


Carl Mirra is Associate Professor of Social Studies in the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University. He is author of The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent with a foreword by Howard Zinn (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010).

On April 9, 2010 Staughton Lynd was the featured speaker at the Organization of American Historian’s event, “Remembering Howard Zinn.”  Lynd concluded with a story taken from Zinn’s SNCC: The New Abolitionists.  Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker Oscar Chase was beaten in jail.  Zinn and two attorneys waited with with Chase in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi FBI office for an officer to take their statement.  Zinn was generally “presentable,” while the lawyers were in neatly pressed suits.  Chase’s shirt, meanwhile, was “splattered with blood,” his face swollen and blood was “caked over his eye.”  Zinn recalls a moment of “sick humor” when an FBI agent appeared and asked, “Who was it got the beating?”

Reflecting on this incident, Lynd wondered:  “Is this a description of academic history? Surely we too need to be more precise…in distinguishing victims from executioners.”  During the 1960s, many radical historians like Zinn and Lynd made such distinctions, took sides, and were all too frequently condemned for producing biased scholarship.  With Zinn’s unfortunate death in January 2010, a flurry of cries about one-sided, biased history is again being tossed about.

But, avoiding sides and seeking “balance” can distort the historical record.  Historian Jesse Lemisch recalled a book used in history courses at Yale in the early 1960s, David Potter and Thomas Manning’s Nationalism and Sectionalism in America 1775–1877.  It contained four slave narratives:  two that were negative and two more positive toward servitude.  Lemisch noted that a reader might conclude that slavery was equal parts positive and negative.  His On Active Service in War and Peace documented how the nation’s most revered historians engaged in biased scholarship in support of the state at a time when radical historians were chastised for their uneven, one-sided scholarship.  He cites several examples of so-called objective historians aggressively advocating anti-Communism in their scholarship.  Conyers Read’s 1949 presidential address before the American Historical Association argued, “Total war, whether it be hot or cold, enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to assume his part.  The historian is no freer than the physicist… This sounds like advocacy of one form of social control as against another.  In short, it is.”  One can only imagine the hysterical reaction if a Howard Zinn or Staughton Lynd had appeared before the AHA to demand that everyone must assume their part in the socialist cause.

Advocacy on behalf of the state often passes unnoticed, while radical advocacy seems to irk historians.

While the complaints about Zinn’s biased history are all too familiar, the tribulations of his comrade and friend Staughton Lynd are less so, yet most instructive for understanding how taking sides can advance the scholarly project.  Lynd’s radical, political engagement enhanced his scholarship, and placed him on the right side of history in at least two monumental events of the postwar years:  the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.  Perhaps no recent figure better represents how radical historians were mistreated at precisely the time they were correcting a rather distorted historical record, whether it was Conyers Read calling for anticommunist crusades, or mainstream scholars denial about the importance of slavery in shaping American history.

Alice Walker explained that her early days of Civil Rights activism in the South were propelled by “the amazingly courageous and generous Staughton Lynd,” who “made it possible to carry on.”  Lynd traveled to the South in the summer of 1961 to teach at Spelman College, an all women’s African-American college, where he encountered the young Walker.  He was recruited by Zinn, who was already teaching history there.  “I have admired [Lynd] enormously ever since I first met him,” Zinn wrote shortly before his death, because he is an “exemplar of strength and gentleness in the quest for a better world.”  Lynd was quickly pulled into the movement for racial integration and later gained widespread notoriety and reverence for his role as the coordinator of the legendary Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964.

“Historians are not supposed to be influenced by their personal experiences,” Lynd observed, “but I was, profoundly.”  Spelman students, for example, had a greater stake than most in “knowing whether the signers of the Declaration were idealists who failed to carry out their program or hypocritical racists who killed Indians and bred Negroes while declaring that all men are equal.”  Of course, history is more complicated than examining polar opposites, but Lynd’s point was that leading scholars, including even progressive historians such as Charles Beard and Carl Becker, “had not taken that question with sufficient seriousness to let it guide” their research.  Too many historians have operated on the presupposition that white tenant farmers and artisans were the Revolutionary era’s most oppressed population, “overlooking one fifth of the nation that was in chains.”

Lynd explored the significance of slavery at the Constitutional Convention in an article titled, “The Compromise of 1787,” which he published in a collection of essays in Class Conflict, Slavery and the United States Constitution.  Details concerning Lynd’s scholarship are beyond the scope of this essay.  But, consider that Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis classified Lynd’s Class Conflict as “the ground breaking scholarly analysis” on the meaning of slavery at the Convention.  Former OAH president Gary Nash has also cited the importance of Lynd’s work and how it “sparked his own.”  The point here is that Lynd’s immersion in the Civil Rights movement forced him to take sides, which in turn, improved historical inquiry.

Lynd was also an early leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement, chairing the first march on Washington against the War in April 1965 that attracted roughly 20,000 people, the largest such demonstration in U.S. history up to that point.  He also participated in a controversial trip to Hanoi in 1965-66, with Tom Hayden and Communist historian Herbert Aptheker.  While in Hanoi, Lynd delivered a speech in which he accused the Johnson administration of lying.  He was at the time a promising history professor at Yale University.  Kingman Brewster, then Yale’s president, used language from the law of treason to describe Lynd’s activities in Hanoi.  Lynd’s charge that the Johnson administration lied to the American people is now well confirmed, particularly concerning the machinations surrounding the Tonkin affair that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War.  The U.S. government also misrepresented its position on negotiations with North Vietnam before Lynd’s trip, which Robert McNamara acknowledges in his book In Retrospect.  Highlighting this misinformation in 1965, rather than in retrospect thirty years later, got Lynd into trouble.  Not only did Yale’s president see it as treason, but his department chair described him as “strident,” and he was eventually dismissed by the Ivy League institution.

A paired comparison of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr and Lynd is instructive.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. taught history at Harvard University, and was a special adviser to JFK in the early 1960s.  While an advisor to President Kennedy the administration failed in its illegal attempt to overthrow Cuba’s dictator, Fidel Castro, in what is know as the “Bay of Pigs” scandal.  Before the invasion, Schlesinger sent a now well-known memorandum to the President discussing possible responses should the operation fail; among the options:  evade, deny or plead ignorance.  Schlesinger, who did raise an objection to the covert fiasco, later admitted that the government was not forthright, and of course, his memo encouraged such behavior.

In defending himself against the Yale president’s accusation, Lynd wondered why the president of Harvard was not similarly concerned about Schlesinger’s behavior.  “For one historian to lie in Washington is almost patriotism,” Lynd quipped, “while for another to try to tell the truth in Hanoi, is almost treason.”  Schlesinger resigned from Harvard in January 1961 and the Bay of Pigs unfolded in April 1961, but the point is that  Schlesinger prodded the president to lie, and Lynd pointed out that a president lied, yet it was the radical who challenged the status quo that faced social sanctions.  Schlesinger was awarded a professorship at City University of New York in 1966, while two years later Lynd was denied tenure at Yale and subsequently blacklisted from the profession.

Lynd’s steadfast involvement in the sixties protest movement, and his ethical commitment to discerning who were indeed the “victims” and “executioners,” certainly helped him make a contribution to scholarship on the Revolutionary era.  Yet, his contribution to racial justice and working to end an unnecessary war contributed to his place as an historical protagonist. 

As the late Alan Dawley put it, “It was not just Yale that [Lynd] spoke to, but the whole country.”  In traveling to Vietnam, Lynd “humanized the enemy” and tried to crack “the Cold War mold that had driven the U.S. to invade Vietnam in the first place.  It may have cost him his career but how many history professors end up with a place in history?”

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